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What the Long-Termers Get Right!

Have you considered the contrast between ministry that is impressive in the short-term vs. ministry that is effective in the long-term?

What values possess the “long-termers?” What do they get right?

This week I crossed the twenty-five-year mark of ministry—but I still feel like a beginner. Almost incessantly, I contemplate and attempt to learn from the “long-termers.” How do they keep their focus, avoid the traps, and go the distance?

Please indulge a moment of nostalgia: Twenty-five years ago, Dana and I drove into Lancaster, California with a car full of luggage and hearts full of dreams. God exceeded our hopes by a long shot! He gave us twenty-two years in California, a home-full of delightful children, and a ministry filled with friends and fruit. Now three-years of “beginning-again” in Connecticut, He has given us a wonderful church family, a home full of grown children, two new grand children, and growing team.

Yet, every day I still feel like I’m just getting started.

This post began as a Skype staff training with the staff of Ambassador Baptist Church in Fresno, California, and my friend, Josh Irmler. With three thousand miles between us, we spent an hour discussing ministry, family, and big values. The discussion evolved into six topics of life and ministry, which Pastor Irmler later sent as the following list.

In my all too brief twenty-five years, and after MANY counseling appointments with older pastors who have been “long-termers”—these principles continually come to the surface.

1. Honor Your God—“Why I do ministry.”

How often do our ministry motives subtly sink beneath the high motivation of honoring God. Pride or ego can drive us; insecurity or identity-quest can drive us; desire to please people or desire for impact can drive us. All of these break down at some point—which is why ministry is so transitory and temporary for many.

When ministry doesn’t fulfill one of my self-delusions, the inevitable disillusionment invites me to move on to something that promises to do so.

The only viable, sustainable motive for ministry is the love and honor of Jesus Christ.

Ministry is only effective and fulfilling when God’s honor reigns over my ambitions, governs my  heart, possesses my emotions, and tempers my drive. This happens in private with God and in His Word. It happens in spiritual solitude where a love for God consumes the heart.

A passion for God’s honor will cause me to live in balance, walk in humility, and serve in sincerity.

2. Honor Your Wife—“How I care for my bride.”

Some husbands view their wives as “hired-help”—brought on to do “stuff” so he can do ministry. Christ-like husbands view their wives as cherished companions. All of life and ministry is a “together thing.”

God is honored when His daughter, which He has loaned to you, is honored and cherished. He is honored when she is listened to, cared for, nurtured. He is honored when she is acknowledged and understood. He cares about her well-being—spiritually, emotionally, and relationally; and He has appointed you to lovingly lead and protect her.

Ministry, as a mistress, is subtle, deceptive, and ultimately disappointing. She steals you from the girl God gave you. Yes, I’m saying God is dishonored when you are married to ministry to the neglect of  your wife. He is displeased when affections that belong to your wife are poured out upon other “deceptively good” things.

Incidentally, when it comes to whether you are “giving your wife and family enough time”—“She’s right.” Just ask her, if you can muster up the courage. “Are you cared for? Are your needs met? Do you have enough quality time with me?”

If she feels neglected, she is. If she feels ministry is stealing her nurture, it is. It’s not my job to transform her to “need less of me”—it’s my job to meet her needs and accept her as she is.

The surest way to accomplish very little in ministry is to neglect the bride Jesus gave me. The church is Jesus’ bride, not mine. He gave me a bride, and I honor Him when I honor her.

3. Honor Your Children—“How I love my family.”

In ministry, I’m expendable and replaceable. At home, I’m not. How many children have grown up essentially “fatherless” because Dad was buried in ministry and consumed with stress. It’s a miserable thing for a kid to be fathered by an angry, frustrated, disappointed, unfilled, unhappy, stressed-out , exhausted, frazzled, pastor/dad. Who can blame that kid for running from ministry (and perhaps from Christianity) as soon as possible?

The children God gave me must come before the children of others. How often have I heard a ministry-grown adult say, “My dad was there for everybody else, but was never home… never there for me.”

Do your children exist for you, or do you exist for them? Do you view them as God’s treasure to serve and nurture? Are you an abrasive, short-fused, perpetually stressed parent? If so, you’re wasting precious time and destroying your most significant ministry opportunity. Not to mention, you’re missing out on some of the most fun and funny experiences of life!

Kids run from oppressive faith, but they embrace authentic Christianity! Show them JESUS, and they will likely love Him (and you) for the rest of their lives.

Practically speaking, do the math. Figure out how much time you have left before they go to college—then be strategic. Number your days off. Figure out how many family vacations you have left. Map out the special times, and be reminded that they won’t last forever. Redeem the time.

When you choose to honor God by honoring your kids, you will be compelled to take that family day, protect your regular day off,  and plan vacations or get-aways.

Then you will blink, and they will be grown. And then you will wish you had yelled less and laughed more.

4. Honor Your Team—“How I co-labor with others.”

Enjoyable and fruitful ministry happens in teams—always. Where people love and labor together, they experience real, joyful New Testament ministry.

How many ministry teams have halted God’s work through comparison and competition? Sometimes the competition is subtle or self-inflicted (identity crisis), other times it’s built into the culture by the leader. Competition and comparison is never healthy in team-oriented ministry.

Toxic teams abound in ministry environments, but there’s something incredibly fun about a healthy team—one where each player is helping the others succeed. Synergy results—together they do more than they ever dreamed, and they LOVE doing it. They celebrate each other’s victories, strengthen each other’s weaknesses, and pull together to serve a cause greater than “the individual.”

Honoring the team requires the death of personal agenda, a heart to serve for the good of the whole team, and a refusal to enter into competition or comparison with the other team-members.

5. Honor the Gospel—“How I Define Life and Mission.”

A gospel-centered life is a humble but confident life. It is joyful, loving, and meek, but also courageous, secure, and life-giving. The gospel keeps you moving forward in courageous faith. It keeps you encouraged in your personal acceptance in Christ. It keeps you humbled by God’s unconditional love. And it keeps you strong in unity with other believers. The gospel keeps you focused on Jesus and others.

In the light of the gospel, your pride becomes smaller, your burden becomes lighter, your struggle becomes weaker, and your hope becomes bigger! The gospel reduces your self-awareness and increases your Jesus-awareness—and the result is sincere humility, authentic joy, and strong personal peace. The result of a gospel-saturated life is true spiritual maturity that reflects well on Jesus and His grace.

The result of a gospel-saturated life is personal fruit! Your authentic joy will glorify Jesus in a way that leads others to Him. The gospel will hold you together, hold your church together, and draw others into relationship with Jesus Christ.

6. Honor God’s People—“How I serve God’s heritage.”

Ministry is serving others, and it only moves forward when those in leadership have a greatly increased view of Jesus, a greatly decreased view of self, and a highly reverential view of God’s family.

I sometimes cringe when I hear a pastor say, “My people…” That phrase can come out two ways—protective or proprietary. The first is shepherdly and affectionate—perhaps it respects, honors, cherishes the church family. The second is despotic and controlling—it denotes a false sense of ownership or “lordship.”

These are God’s people. I did not die for them, He did. He graciously entrusted me with the privilege and opportunity to serve and nurture them—as He would.

Remembering this will place a clear boundary around “how” I lead and love them. It will force me to lead them to JESUS, and in no way exploit or manipulate them. It will help me temper my will against His will. It will cause me to rest in His work within them rather than trying to wrestle my own work upon them.

——

Six simple principles that I see the long-termers “get right.”

Looking back on my short journey, my regrets all center on struggles in one of these six values. My rejoicing all centers upon growth in these areas.

Before long, my short visit to planet earth will come to a close.

Will I have labored more for me than for others? Will I have fought more for my own identity than I did for the honor of Jesus? Will I have loved ministry more than Jesus and others?

Will my life speak more to honor or dishonor?

My prayer is that these six principles will be evident in my life story. One day, I hope to be a long-termer too!

“Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

 

PS—this post is far from exhaustive… what values do you see in those who serve long-term?

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